Television regulators consider it “futile” to attempt to enforce a licensing requirement for cable companies to provide a “free-to-air” public channel.
Premier Alden McLaughlin, fielding questions in the Legislative Assembly last month, acknowledged the requirement was not being enforced.
The admission has raised some concern among local television producers because that condition is intertwined with an obligation to provide local community-based content.
Mr. McLaughlin said the requirements for the four companies which hold “type 7” television broadcast licenses – Digicel, C3, Flow and Logic – need to be updated to reflect advances in technology.
In his speech to the house, he said the regulator recognized it was not cost-effective to demand all four companies set up a free-to-air analog channel in a small market, where the majority of the population had access to cable television or streaming devices.
It is not clear how the separate part of that mandate – that at least 20 percent of the content on that channel be “local” – is being enforced, though Mr. McLaughlin suggested the “spirit” of the requirement was being observed.
April Cummings, who founded and self-funds the Cayman Life TV channel, said if regulators are abandoning the requirement for a free-to-air channel, they need to find some other way of supporting local content. She said the requirement was designed to safeguard content that was culturally important but not necessarily commercially viable in a small market.
Alee Fa’amoe, OfReg’s telecoms regulator, did not respond to questions from the Compass on how OfReg planned to handle the issue.
Mr. McLaughlin said that while government is interested in ensuring all cable providers carry local content, it is less concerned that they do so through a traditional free-to-air analog channel as the license currently requires.
“OfReg considers it unwise, if not futile, to pursue a policy of enforcement on this issue,” he said. “Instead, the country could be better served by embracing new technologies and leveraging the benefits of lower cost, more robust and capable broadcasting standards, such as digital television.”
He said OfReg was currently examining license obligations with a view to “modernizing and streamlining” those requirements.
“It is complex and expensive to set up and operate a TV station in small market. With new technology, it is possible to create local content without the overheads associated with a television station, and there are several sources of video content carried on various channels.”
The level of content carried on the various cable networks differs widely, with most operators providing some local programming either through Cayman 27, which provides daily news, sport and talk shows, or through travel and lifestyle channels like Cayman Life TV, which have lower budget costs, or government television channel CIGTV, which is funded by the taxpayer.
A 2014 study commissioned by the Information and Communications Technology Authority, the precursor to OfReg, showed support for genuine local content.
In an interview with the Compass in 2015, Mr. Fa’amoe said simply carrying government television would not be sufficient for cable companies to meet their licensing obligations.
But no specific set of requirements, beyond the unenforced obligation to carry a free-to-air channel with 20 percent local content, have been revealed. In the absence of any guidance, the cable companies are left to decide what level of financial commitment to make to local television.
Mr. McLaughlin, speaking in the assembly, suggested this issue would be considered as part of a wider review of the telecommunications industry, also contemplating how this content should be delivered.
The U.K. discontinued offering free-to-air public access television channels through analog broadcasting – sometimes referred to as “rabbit ears” in reference to the distinctive television aerials – in 2012. It has been replaced with “Freeview” digital boxes, which provide a basic set of channels, including the BBC, to every household.
Ms. Cummings, whose Cayman Life TV runs online and on Logic cable channel 33, said the method of delivery should be secondary to the larger concern of supporting programming.
She said providing boxes to access local content that barely exists would not solve the issue. Ms. Cummings said the market in Cayman was too small to make well-produced local content viable without financial support.
She believes that if regulators are not going to enforce the cable companies’ licensing requirement to provide a free-to-air channel, they should at least compel them to support local content production.
“The Cayman Islands agreed to allow telecommunications companies the opportunity to make a profit by selling subscription television,” she said.
“Those companies made a commitment to provide free local television as part of that package. If they didn’t plan to do it, then why did they sign legally binding agreements? And why are we as a country buying into the argument that they can’t afford to do it?”
She said the costs of producing local television content were not that great in the context of the profit margins of a cable company.
Ms. Cummings, the news director at Radio Cayman and a former broadcast journalist at several CBS stations in the United States, said regulators should focus on ensuring, first, the existence of local content, and then free universal access to local content, as opposed to focusing too heavily on specifying the method of delivery.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s analog or digital, just that it’s available free to the public, and that means all of the public, even if they can’t afford a cable subscription, data plan or internet access,” she said. “Should someone living below the poverty line be expected to use their pay-as-you-go data plan to watch local programming? I don’t think they should have to.”
She questioned whether CIGTV, as a government mouthpiece, could legitimately fulfill the remit to provide community programming.
“Caymanians are losing touch with their identify,” Ms. Cummings said, “and by refusing to ensure that local content celebrating who we are and where we come from is not only created at a professional level and distributed in the same prominence as all of the external media – we are sending a strong message that our story doesn’t matter.”
Monica Walton, owner of Vagabond Media Group, which produces lifestyle, travel and advertising content on various platforms around the Caribbean, as well as the tourism channel This is Cayman on Logic channel 36, said producing relevant and high-quality local content was a lengthy and expensive process.
“It’s difficult to make local content for TV viable in such a small market,” she said. “I think if we want to see this change, government could look at other ways to incentivize it. Creating a public service fund could be an option, but would people pay for it?”
She said technology was democratizing the process, however, with digital media creating new platforms for producers and consumers.
“It also comes down to the content producers themselves if they want it to be sustainable,” she said. “They can get creative when it comes to getting their content out there, and adapt to an ever-changing market.”